Whenever the topic of Marx or Marxism is broached around economists, or graduate students studying [bourgeois] economy, they immediately launch into ideological invectives that not only demonstrate an utter ignorance of the Marxist canon - an ignorance passed off as intelligence - but an ignorance of what they think is "wrong" with the Marxism: the labour theory of value.
I'm tired of arguing with people who have no bloody idea exactly what the labour theory of value is. These are the people who immediately launch into tirades about how Marx "misunderstood price" or that there is "something called supply and demand."
No shit. There is also something called actually reading Marx, and everyone who rejects the labour theory of value is either: 1) an utterly stupid idealist who believes that the economy is some sort of natural force outside of human existence (the invisible hand); 2) someone who misunderstands (either intentionally or because they haven't done the reading) this "labour theory of value."
Of course it doesn't help that so many people who are pro-LTV are geeky Marxist economists who get lost in economic-speak, fascinated with how Marx used the LTV to describe price, etc. So what is this strange beast called the Labour Theory of Value?
I think Rosa Luxemburg did a good job of summing up the LTV in The Accumulation of Capital: "It is of course true that raw materials, instruments, and the like, must be taken into consideration with all labour. Yet is it not true also that these raw materials and instruments in their turn are equally the products of labour [...] We may go back as far as we choose, we may twist and turn the problem as much as we like, yet we shall find no element in the value of any commodity - and therefore none in the price - which cannot be resolved purely in terms of human labour." (The Accumulation of Capital, p. 36)
Without human labour a commodity would not possess a market value. Without humans to work and make things that will be exchanged, then there would be nothing to exchange. The LTV ultimately means nothing more complex than value comes from human labour. Yes, we can imagine machines making things on an assembly line but: 1) human labour was responsible for the creation of these machines; 2) human labour maintains these machines.
Looking at it on a more philosophical level, though, we can say that the concept of value itself is intrinsically connected to human existence. We produce value by saying what is of use to us, what is more valuable than something else, etc. Without humans there would be no "value" as such. Without human labour there would be no exchange-value: if nothing was made than nothing would be exchanged.
So idiots who claim that the LTV is wrong ultimately believed that value originates in some source other than human. Do things possess some sort of eternal value determined by the heavens? Where does value come from? Supply and demand? Are these natural forces that are not dependent on human action? Did they exist before humans and thus will exist for all time? Of course, the bourgeois economist and the students of bourgeois economy will never answer these questions: they will just blather on about some inane model that they have imposed upon existence, not a model (like dialectical materialism) that is derived from real existence. This is why Samir Amin called pure economics a "parascience [that] compares to social science as parapsychology compares to psychology. Like any parascience it can be used to demonstrate anything and its opposite." (Spectres of Capitalism, p. 140) Amin also points out that the bourgeois economic institution enlists "amateur mathematicians" that can use "mathematical terms to throw dust in the eyes of non-mathematicians." (ibid., p. 142) He compares it to a modern witchcraft that, like the occult practices of old, believes in invisible market forces and uses esoteric terminology to justify the status quo.
People who don't believe in the Labour Theory of Value are idiots.
I recently read some more interesting denunciations of the Labour Theory of Value that, although not from a bourgeois-economist perspective, are equally strange. Ward Churchill, for example, rejects the LTV on the grounds that it is anti-indigenous: he thinks it means that Marx is saying something like *a mountain only has value insofar as it can be reduced to a commodity* (ie. reduced by labour to gravel and sold). I doubt he would have this concern with the LTV if there weren't so many morons defining it in such a crude, economistic manner.ReplyDelete
Hey! Quit dissing geeky Marxist economists who get lost in economic speak!!!ReplyDelete
Are you one such geeky Marxist economist, Mr. Shipley?ReplyDelete
LTV does exist, but, I do not think it can represent the entirety of contemporary laboring people. I dismiss the idea that low-level programmers (and, as such, are often now dispersed globally, with China, Italy, Eastern Europe and India becoming strong competitors in the field if informational work) and clerical workers are either non-productive (since they do not valorize capital, but, do expend surplus labor) or caught up in the labor aristocracy (another answer to the postmodernization of the economy.) Instead, while I think labor does produce value, I also think knowledge produces 'value' in the form of rent. I think Zizek has it right here. I am an engineer myself and I can't say with any honesty that I can judge just how much labor-time went into producing what I produce, in fact, I often come up with ideas sitting on the toilet taking a shit and my work is often extended to the majority of the week. Valorizing 'knowledge work' is inherently parasitic, it is rent off workers-as-fixed-capital. I think we need to explore this. While I am unlike Negri in the sense that we need to disband the distinction between productive and unproductive, labor aristocracy and proletariat, and the labor theory of value, I do think that there are dual systems of exploitation at work here that interpenetrate in ways that we have not explored as Marxists.ReplyDelete
These are definitely worthwhile avenues of exploration, but I don't think they don't detract from the general point of the LTV - mainly that anything that can be understood and sold as valuable under capitalism has been produced by human labour. We can speak of value outside of exchange, clearly, but also, at the same time, the only thing that is recognized as value-as-value in a capitalist mode of production is that which can be exchanged: and this is the problem with capitalism. The problem with labour-time is more of an issue with the transformation problem than the root of the LTV itself.ReplyDelete
Definitely interested in your comments about valorizing knowledge work, parasitism, and "rent off workers-as-fixed-capital" - this is clearly an avenue that needs further deelopment.
Ok, so you addressed a few different segments of Bourgeois economic theory, how about the Austrian School's counter to LTV with Marginal Utility? It seems from my understanding of it that the emphasis is placed on a subjective level of each individual consumer and what they deem to have value and this extrapolated all the way to a position of living in an era of tainted Capitalism and the necessity of the dissolution of the State in order for pure Capitalism to be put into effect. I disagree with this tremendously, from a Marxist perspective of course, but I am interested to hear your response to this tangent within bourgeois economic theory...ReplyDelete
My argument about LTV generally takes place on a metapolitical level because it is not (as this post mentions in an asinine way) an "economistic" theory but a theory about economics. That is, it does not accept that economic logic is natural; thus the origin of value must be found outside of the market – hence the LTV. This is why I would argue that the Austrian school's counter also misunderstands the LTV and again disappears into a reified world of economism: the assumption that there is such a thing as an essential individual consumer, for example, ignores the broader question which is, philosophically speaking, if nothing was produced then there would be nothing to be exchanged and hence no value… let alone a market.ReplyDelete
Actually, since this post was more of an early rant in the days when I didn't think anyone but a few friends would read a blog it doesn't get to what my main point is: again, a philosophical point that already rejects any economistic position that does not see the capitalist market as historically contingent (which the Austrian school does, demonstrating yet again the short-sighted and unimaginative [not to mention illogical] mindset of mainstream economics). I have a sequel piece that talks about how the LTV is usually "understood" by pro-capitalist economic theorists (the Austrian school included - they really don't know what they're talking about to begin with, or what Marx even means by "value") that I put out a year later:
I'm also working on a much larger and more analytical, precise, and properly academic piece (not the kind of thing I bang out on a blog) that will explain precisely why a proper understanding of the Labour Theory of Value [or as one of my commenters would eventually say, it should be called "the value theory of labour"] will automatically preclude all of the straw-person counters that still seek the meaning of value from within the boundaries of the market––the market which, we as marxists believe (and what bourgeois economists just can't accept because they're ultimately idealists) is nothing more than the reified result of social relations. This piece is intended to be a chapter in a larger book; it would be nice if such a book could be published.